Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Better Mug Cake

Friday's pudding post has had me thinking about dessert, so I thought I'd share another dessert recipe with you while we're on the subject.

If you've been anywhere near Pinterest, StumbleUpon, or any of the hundreds of cooking blogs out there on the internet lately, chances are you've encountered the mug cake. As fads go, this is one of the ones that you either love with all your heart, or you hate.

Taking a cue from the multitude of recipes and comments I've read, there seem to be two main problems with the standard mug cake: too eggy, or too oily. Most recipes use a whole egg for one little mug cake, so I can see how that would be overpowering. Oil adds richness to the cake, but too much is not a good thing.

After experimenting quite a bit with the mug cake and the mug brownie, I think I've created a pretty good recipe. Maybe not the best, but, as the title claims, at least a better recipe than the standard one floating around.

My first attempt was based on a mug brownie recipe that left out the egg altogether, thereby solving one problem, and I further decided to eliminate the oil by replacing it with plain nonfat yogurt. The results were edible, but the cake was gummy and a little too tangy for my taste.

For my second attempt, I surmised that a completely nonfat mug brownie probably wasn't ever going to taste that great. So I used just a tablespoon of oil in the batter, and it was better but still suffered from the gumminess problem many people have experienced with these cakes. It really needed a little bit of "lift" to improve the texture.

The recipe that I'm giving you here is the third variation, no eggs and no oil involved. I used just a pinch of baking soda to make it lighter and fluffier without egg. I also swapped out the oil for something better...peanut butter! The (odd? weird? interesting?) thing about this cake is that you don't really taste the peanut butter, but it adds that element of fat that you need to keep it tasting like cake. Sometimes I play it up by adding a dollop of peanut butter on top.

Chocolate Mug Cake
Serves 1

  • 1 tbsp peanut butter
  • Dash vanilla
  • 4 tbsp flour (sometimes I sub instant oats for one or two tablespoons--the texture takes some getting used to, though)
  • Pinch of baking soda (really, just a pinch will do!)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 3-4 tbsp skim milk
  • Toppings (optional)

1.  Start by adding the peanut butter and vanilla to a 12-oz microwavable mug. Microwave on high for about 30 seconds until the peanut butter is melted.

Add the peanut butter...

...and get it nice and melty.

2.  Add the flour, baking soda, salt, sugar and cocoa powder to the mug.

Dry ingredients next.

3.  Add 2 tbsp of milk and stir with a fork to combine, being sure to scrap the sides and bottom of the mug. Add more milk as needed until the mixture looks like cake batter.

Now is the time to indulge your cake batter
fantasies, without risk of salmonella.

4.  Place the mug in the microwave and cook on high for one minute. I always use a 12-ounce mug just in case, but this cake doesn't rise nearly as much as the ones that use egg in them.

Check the cake and continue to cook in 15-second intervals as needed, being careful not to overcook. Mine are usually done after a minute, although there's usually a small uncooked spot on the very top in the center. But since there's no egg in the batter, I don't worry about it!

Mug cakes are not the most photogenic food.

5.  Top the cake with a dollop of peanut butter or Nutella, sliced fruit, or whatever you like.

An attempted close-up of the texture.

My honest opinion: cake made in the microwave will never live up to "real" cake baked in the oven. That said, if you are going to make cake in the microwave, you don't have to settle for a gummy blob. Read recipes and comments, experiment, and see what happens.

So, what do you think? Have you tried mug cake? Do you have an even better recipe?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Chocolate Pudding for One

One of the challenges of cooking for one is dealing with my favorite meal of the day: dessert.

I only really bake brownies or cookies when I've got someone to give them to (students and housemates are great for this, most of the time). Muffins and other baked goods only get made when I can claim some space and stash a few in the freezer.

That means that the solo dessert-eater is a bit limited in choices, especially if you don't live with other people who are willing to eat the rest of that two-tiered chocolate cake for you.

The mug cake/mug brownie craze is one option, and I'd have to say it's a pretty good one. Some other choices are ice cream and hot chocolate, also good. But sometimes I get sick of them, and sometimes I just want something different. When that happens, I turn to this recipe: chocolate pudding.

Mmmmm.. warm, homemade pudding.

I know what you're thinking: isn't that what they make pudding cups for? Yes, probably, but I never seem to think that far ahead when I grocery shop, plus who knows if I'll feel like pudding that week or not. Personally, I find it easier to just keep a lot of basic ingredients on hand, so that I can make whatever appeals to me when I want it.

This recipe actually derives from a hot cocoa recipe on the Eating Well site. I found it when I was in a hot chocolate mood, and the short list of ingredients appealed to me. As I read through the comments, I was intrigued by one reviewer's observation that simply adding more cornstarch to the recipe resulted in something more pudding-like. I took the idea and ran with it.

The recipe you see below makes enough pudding for one chocoholic, or probably two regular people. The full serving is about 170 calories if you use skim milk. (I haven't tried it with nondairy or any other type of milk.) If you want to make hot cocoa instead, reduce the amount of cornstarch to about 1 1/2 teaspoons. Or, if you get tired of waiting for your pudding to thicken I suppose you could just drink it instead.

Chocolate Pudding
Serves one, but is enough to share!

Only four basic ingredients! And you probably have them!


1 cup milk
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp cocoa powder

Dash of vanilla, optional
Dash of salt, optional


1.  Heat milk in a saucepan over the lowest heat setting.

I've found that this funny looking flat spoon is the best
stirring utensil for this. You can use a whisk in the beginning,
but switch to a spoon for the best pan-scraping ability.

2.  Stir in sugar, cornstarch, and cocoa. Add a dash of vanilla and/or a pinch of salt, if desired. Whisk or stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until combined.

It looks messy at first.

But it will come together!

3.  Heat, stirring frequently. Scrap the sides and bottom of the pan with the spoon often.

If you're bored at this point, you could probably just stop
and have hot chocolate.

4.  The mixture will eventually begin to thicken. When it comes to a simmer (slow bubbles every few seconds), stir constantly.

Look for the slow bubbles.

5.  Cook and stir until the mixture reaches a thin pudding consistency. (It will thicken some as it stands.) Pour into a bowl or container.

At this point, if you've planned ahead, you can refrigerate your pudding to eat later. Press a piece of plastic wrap into the pudding surface if you want to avoid the pudding skin, or just cover it loosely if you happen to like the skin.

I, however, seldom realize that I want pudding until I really want it right then. So I just pour it into a bowl and let it cool a bit while I wash the dishes, and then eat it while it's still warm.

Top it with strawberries or banana slices!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Food List Challenge: Fish Tacos

If you've spent any time on Facebook recently you may have noticed a new iteration of what I'm calling the "list app": The Food List Challenge. Basically, it's a list of 100 foods and you check off which ones you've eaten to prove that you're a real "foodie."

Going into the "Challenge," I knew I was at a disadvantage. I'll eat just about any type of fruit, vegetable, bread, cheese, or dessert that you throw at me. Organs, insects, and other oddities aren't my cup of tea though, and the list features quite a few. All in all, I came out with a score of 27 out of 100.

What was surprising to me, though, wasn't all the weird things like crickets and kangaroo. It was how many "normal," readily available foods I haven't eaten. And so, in the past week I have added two new foods to my list: heirloom tomatoes (more on that later) and fish tacos.

I'm not sure why I've never tried fish tacos before. Lord knows they're everywhere these days. But I finally did, and I was pretty happy with the results. This recipe relies pretty heavily on the George Foreman Grill, but you could use a real grill or modify the cooking methods.

Simple Fish Tacos
Serves 1
Basic ingredients, minus the spices.

Cooking spray
1 small ear of corn
1 fish fillet (I used perch)
Lemon juice
Chili powder
1-2 tortillas (I had spinach tortillas so that's what I used)
Taco toppings (I used salsa verde, chopped spinach, and plain yogurt)


1.  Preheat the Foreman Grill. Husk and remove the silk from the ear of corn. Spray with cooking spray (or brush with oil) and season with salt and pepper.

2.  Place the corn on the grill. Cook at least 3-4 minutes, turning frequently, until done. (I left mine on the grill for probably close to 7 or 8 minutes, waiting for it to develop some nice grill lines, but it never did. Still tasty though.) Remove the corn from the grill and set aside.

Corn before grilling.
After grilling. You won't get grill marks, but if you turn it
frequently, you will get crisp, tasty cooked corn.

3.  Dry the fish fillet with paper towels. Rub with lemon juice and then season with salt, pepper, and chili powder, or other spices as desired. Spray the grill surfaces with cooking spray and add the fish.

Fish before grilling. I forgot to snap a picture of it afterwards.

4.  While the fish is cooking, prep the taco toppings. Chop spinach, lettuce, or other vegetables. When the corn is cool enough to handle, use a small knife to cut the kernels off the cob.

I got really good at removing corn from the cob when
I had braces back in middle school. Also pictured:
coarsely chopped spinach.

5.  When the fish is done (timing will depend on the size of your fillet), remove it from the grill and flake it with a fork.

6.  Place a frying pan on the stove over medium heat. Add the tortillas one at a time, and heat for about ten seconds on each side.

Warm tortillas are the only way to go here.

7.  Top each tortilla with corn, fish, and whatever other toppings you want. I found that the lime in the salsa verde worked really well with the fish for my tacos. I also used some plain nonfat yogurt in place of sour cream--it's similar in taste and texture, and I almost always have some on hand (you can also use it on baked potatoes and in a lot of other sour cream situations).

So, my first experience with fish tacos was pretty ok. I made two tacos out of one pretty small fillet, so there wasn't much fish in each one. I think I'd use more next time or only make one taco, and season the fish more. Also, I love spinach tortillas, but the spinach taste was a little overpowering. I'd use plain or wheat tortillas if possible.

Watermelon and cantaloupe.

Overall, it was an easy meal and one that I'd definitely make again. Paired with a nice bowl of fruit, it was the perfect dinner for the summery weather we've been having.

Have you taken the Food List Challenge? What's your score?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara

So, my foray into the world of vegetarianism is nearly at an end. Yes, I know that Easter was last weekend, but I decided to do an extra week of Lent to atone for my meat consumption at home over spring break. (I can only justify my behavior with the following words: Steak. Pork chop. Cheeseburger. As in, I ate and relished them all in their homemade glory.) But I'm "doing the time" now and on Sunday I'm back to my omnivorous habits once more.

I already have my first meat-containing meal picked out: spaghetti carbonara.

Carbonara is one of the dishes I have missed a lot over the past couple of months. But, eventually I decided to stop missing it and to create an alternative, vegetarian version.

My first attempt was a pared down version, exactly like the original but without the bacon. It was bland and boring. I realized that it wasn't enough to leave out the bacon; instead I had to replace it with something that would add depth and flavor to the dish, as well as some sort of fat to help the sauce come together.

The version I ultimately created relies on spinach sauteed in garlic, red pepper, and olive oil to provide that extra fat and flavor, not to mention a little bit of a kick!

Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara
Serves 1

  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • Spaghetti or other long pasta
  • 1 tbsp salt 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
  • 1 cup fresh baby spinach
This dish features many of the "usual suspects" in my kitchen.

1. Beat the egg in a serving bowl. Add the Parmesan cheese and black pepper, and stir to combine. Set aside near the sink where you will drain the pasta.

2.  Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the salt and pasta and cook according to the package's instructions.

3.  While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan. Add the garlic and red pepper and cook for about a minute. Add the spinach and saute until just barely wilted.

Saute the garlic and pepper for about a minute.

After the spinach is just wilted, I turn off the heat
and push it all together so it's easier to dump it
in the bowl later.

Don't overcook the spinach; it will continue to wilt in the pan
and once it's tossed with the pasta.
4.  When the pasta is al dente, drain it and immediately add it to the egg mixture. Dump the spinach and olive oil on top, and toss until a sauce forms on the noodles. Top with additional cheese and black pepper, if desired.

Remember, this is the step where you need to work quickly
to cook that egg! Toss it like you mean it!
The result:
It may not be bacon but I do love spinach--especially when it's paired with garlic and red pepper. I think the spiciness of this version makes up for the lack of meat. It's not a replacement for the real thing, but it's a decent alternative and one that I'd make again--even if it's not Lent!